On Anxiety Attacks and the Fiction of Scientific “Reality”

This one, from our archives, remains every bit as relevant (and comforting!) as when Ethan […]

Mockingbird / 1.24.18

This one, from our archives, remains every bit as relevant (and comforting!) as when Ethan wrote it in 2013.

A typical description of an anxiety attack or a panic attack goes something like this: a routine behavior suddenly and emphatically goes rogue. You are driving, you are eating an orange slice, taking a test, conversing at a party, and the moment becomes obstructed by an impossible–not just mental but also physical–and inimical weight. You suddenly feel you cannot breathe, that your chest is closing like one of those cavern doors in the Temple of Doom. Or maybe you feel like your brain is drowning in its own rootless connections, all the neurons and synapses gasping acid. This makes you worry if your heart or your brain has some hidden biological defect that doctors have never discovered before, that this may be the end–which makes you react even more. You soon realize you’re no longer here, performing the behavior you were just performing–you’re not chewing or listening or conversing anymore–or if you still are, it feels like someone outside yourself doing it. You suddenly feel as though you’ve become an alien to yourself, your circuitous thoughts having taken you to some precipice of ridiculous importance, and you cannot escape. You know you’re thinking/breathing/acting crazy (Are you crazy? Is this how craziness starts? people get their start?) but you cannot find the handle to climb down or the air in your lungs to get free of it.

It is no surprise that taking deep breaths is often the way you do get free of it, that by doing something physical–breathing deeply, pinching your hand, jogging–you tend to chill out, reminding your body that it is still your body. For a while, be it minutes or hours, your mind has punished your body, muzzling it into its own imagination. And it shows: when you “have” anxiety, your blood pressure steeps, your breathing quickens. People are known to pass out, throw up, lose their appetite. You are self-bound, in a sense, encased in weird fear. What has always been described as “everyday,” the mind has lifted to a paralyzing and grotesque apogee–but are you crazy?

Besides Will McDavid’s conference talk on the illness of our age, specifically adhering to those in their 20s, I haven’t quite heard a take on modern anxiety like Marilynne Robinson‘s essay, “Facing Reality.” Repelled by the modern take on capital-R Reality, and its reductionist tendencies in the age of science, Robinson instead wants to draw the lines between true-versus-false and non-fiction-versus-fiction.

9780312425326We have put together among ourselves a rigidly simple account of life in the world, which we honor with the name Reality and which, we now assure one another, must be faced and accepted, even or especially at the cost of those very things which societies we admire are believed by us to value, for example education, the arts, a humane standard of life for the whole of community. Science fetches back from its explorations mystery upon mystery, yet somehow we feel increasingly sunk in a world of mere things, in a hard-edged Reality that disallows imagination except to exact tribute from it, in portraits which assert its own power and ferocity, or in interludes and recreations which conceded by their triviality that only Reality matters. Our present model of the world is a fiction, based on notions of objectivity and of the character and implications of science which are a hundred years out of date… For many of us it is true to say, Reality marks our ballots, even rears our children. It is a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to. Yet it flourishes, because it is the servant and gatekeeper of dearer interests, a prized dependent upon which we in fact depend.

“Reality”–as deduced from the all-knowing sciences–is what Robinson calls a “collective fiction,” a story or narrative we tell about ourselves and our societies and the environments around us. But capital-R Reality, even though it is a “fiction,” is not therefore false. Reality says that the atmospheric pressure on Venus is 92 times that of Earth; Reality says you will get sick, and that Verruca vulgaris (a common wart) is helped by Dinitrochlorobenzene or Salicylic Acid; Reality says bullying affects the psychological health of children into adulthood; Reality says that societies will decay, that you will someday die. None of this is false. The presences of death, illness, grief–these are real. As Robinson says, “anxious people are anxious for a reason.”

“Reality” is a collective fiction, though, in the way it positions human knowing–that we have, that we are the finders of, “The Great Truth.” Seeing the world through the fictional lens of “Reality,” while lending us the feeling of safety, has had very real consequences. Thus, anxiety:

Our collective fiction is full of anxiety, empty of humor and generosity. It elaborates itself in the manner of phobia or delusion rather than vision or fancy. We find comfort in anxiety because it engrosses our attention, which we have in surplus, and are usually at a loss to employ. And anxiety is a stimulant, like love, like hatred, thought generally not so prone to extravagant expression as they are, indeed even secretive, and therefore liable suddenly to produce great effects from what are apparently very small causes.

Here is one topic under which the phenomenon of anxiety can be considered. As a culture we are terrified of illness, though as people go we are rather safe from it. Perhaps to feed our anxiety, illness for us has overspilled definition and is now to discovered everywhere, in everyone. Emotions are regarded as symptoms and treated medically, including, of course, anxiety. This is true even while the boundless resources of society seem largely bent to the work of stimulating fear, disgust, resentment–emotions that in fact are pathological and also pathogenic. It is as if we took morphine to help us sleep on a bed nails. Another generation would have looked for another solution.

Our terror of doctors and of medications is a generalization of the same anxiety that drives us to them, another form of hypochondriasis…We will not reflect, or draw lessons of experience, because fearful people improvise solutions, and feel too powerless to consider a problem from the point of view of their own responsibility.

Robinson is not just getting sentimental and old-fashioned here. She is also not declaring war on the antidepressant. She is talking about an era of immense worry, when there is arguably less to worry about than ever before in the history of the world; about rising doctor visits in an age when people are living longer than they’ve ever lived. Specialists and scientists have become the namers of our syndrome, and their prognosis excuses us from thinking about what’s gone wrong. This “Reality” is both the cause and progenitor of anxiety, its narratives having “something like an organic life, in the way they invade experience and transform it to the uses of their own survival.”

Robinson thinks this means we have lost what the Bible calls “sin.” If every malady can be answered with a palliative, we have lost the depth and seriousness of our condition. By “medicalizing” a condition, we distance ourselves from the meaning of our suffering, as well as any real responsibility we might have in the matter. We do not feel the inner-pangs of Eden–we cotton them off with smaller doses of smaller problems. This makes us all the more anxious.

I am reminded here of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s phrase in his Michael Jackson essay, that we are inheritors of the “pathology of pathologization.” We, the Knowers, must call our sin small, long Latin names, and seek meliorative means to soothe the twitch. As Robinson says, we do need medicine for our anxiety–but we need more. “It may be necessary to offer ourselves palliatives, but is drastically wrong to offer or to accept a palliative as if it were a cure.”

A cure. A cure for the cures of Reality. For this, Marilynne Robinson looks to the Bible, to the stories of Adam and of Christ. A new door opens, then, when you have a panic attack and, for a moment, you see yourself as taking part in the “seriousness of being human,” of being an inheritor and forebear of responsibility and failure. This is not to glorify the anxiety you feel, it is to intensify it with the brunt of God, to bring on “profound anxiety, whose origins we would (in the Modern context) be at a loss to name.” But, then, Marilynne suggests, in seeing the depths of a reckoning and the gift the Bible’s Gospel brings us, we might be able to laugh at the normal abnormalcy of who we are:

To borrow a question from Jean Genet, what would happen if someone started laughing? What if the next demographically marketed grievance or the next convenience-packaged dread, or the next urgent panacea for the sweet, odd haplessness of the body started a wave of laughter that swept over the continent? What if we understood our vulnerabilities to mean we are human, and so are our friends and our enemies, and so are our cities and books and gardens, our inspirations, our errors…I consider it an honor to follow Saint Francis or William Tyndale or Angelina Grimké or Lydia Maria Child anywhere, even to mere extinction. I am honored in the cunning of my hand. This being human–people have loved it through plague and famine and siege. And Dante, who knew the world about suffering, had a place in hell for people who were grave when they might have rejoiced.

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2 responses to “On Anxiety Attacks and the Fiction of Scientific “Reality””

  1. We necessarily live in a subset of the ‘Real World’. It is too vast for beings of limited time and comprehension to fully grasp.

    Some of us recognize that compromise. Some insist that their small, safe world is at least an accurate Executive Summary of all Reality. Maintaining that illusion requires them to ignore, deny, or speciously mock new insights and unsettling questions.

    My ironic observation is that people are more apt to accept new insights if Reality is first presented to them as fiction. That has become my personal crusade.

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